The History of the Bikini

July 04, 2020
Isabella Torchia

Happy National Bikini Day! Since July 5, 1946, women have been hitting the beaches and poolsides in a swimsuit called the bikini. But did you know bikinis have been donned for hundreds of years? Read on to learn about the world’s most famous swimsuit, and how Knix is rewriting history.

286-305 AD: For Goddesses and Warriors 

Bikinis are retro. It might be surprising, but female athletes are depicted on Greco-Roman urns and paintings wearing bikinis as early as 1400 BC. One of the most notable early artworks is the Coronation of the Winner mosaic found on the floor of a Roman villa in Sicily, that dates back to around 286-305 AD. Ten maidens dubbed the “Bikini Girls” by historians are shown weightlifting, discus throwing and running... all while donning the iconic two-piece. Talk about goddesses! 

Source: Coronation of the Winners, aka the Bikini girls mosaic
The 1910s: Covering up with decency laws

Western swimsuits in the 18th century were anything but bikinis. Made of thick wool or flannel, women often wore bathing gowns that were full-sleeve and ankle lengthall in the name of modesty of course (we’re sweating just thinking about it). Women’s swimwear got a jolt in 1907 however, when badass Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested on a Boston beach for wearing a form fitting, sleeveless suit that she adopted from Europe. This started influencing women to start wearing things a little... lighter to swim. Team Annette!

Source: Annette Kellerman in her scandalous swimmer 

A few years later, inspired by the introduction of women competing in Olympic swimming, designer Carl Jantzen created the first functional two-piece swimsuit. It was a close-fitting costume (thanks Annette for the inspo!) except with shorts on the bottom and short sleeves on the top. Now we’re getting somewhere.

The 1930s: Time to tan 

Swimsuits began to reflect the trend of “tanning” at bathhouses, outdoor spas, and beaches. With the introduction of latex and nylon, gone were the days of heavy flannel in the water. Manufacturers started lowering necklines, sleeves and also began making straps thinner which allowed women to get their tan on. 

These suits also started becoming Hollywood approved, with actress Dolores del Rio sporting a two-piece swimsuit in the 1933 movie Flying Down to Rio. This wasn’t done without controversy however, and a year later the United States Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) prohibited the display of navels in Hollywood on the big screen. 

Source: Dolores Del Rio in her famous 2-piece swimsuit (not a belly button in sight!) 

The 1940s: Introducing the bikini 

The modern day bikini was born out of a very simple equation: French designers began designing fashions that reflected the care-free liberated mood after WWII ended, all while fabric remained in short supply.

In 1946, designer Jacques Helm launched a two-piece bather he called the atome, after the smallest particle of matter. To compete with Helm, engineer Louis Réard designed a more revealing version and debuted it a few days after the first test of an American nuclear weapon at the Bikini Atoll. The word bikini was already a word on everyone’s lips, so Réard jumped at the buzzy name. “Like the [atom] bomb, the bikini is small and devastating”, Réard announced. 

Réard hired model and dancer Micheline Bernardini to model the bikini, and it immediately caught waves. And while she received 50,000 fan letters (many from men), the bikini became more than just a revealing, controversial piece of clothing. French newspaper Le Figaro said it best, “For women, wearing a bikini signalled a kind of second liberation. There was really nothing sexual about this. It was instead a celebration of freedom and a return to the joys in life”. 

Source: Micheline Bernardini posing in the first ever bikini. The box she's holding? The bikini could fit in it. 
The 1950s: Glamour Shots

During the 1950s, Hollywood stars ushered in the bikini’s popularity. Icon like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Esther Williams, Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth all posed in bikinis for glamour shots, which helped catapult this bathing suit into the mainstream. Pin-up modelling was also super popular, making these pics widely circulated on both sides of the Atlantic. They hit Brazil too, with Elvira Pagã walking the 1950 Rio Carnival in a golden bikinistarting the bikini tradition of the carnival. 

Source: Elvira Pagã the first Rio Carnival Queen 

But debates also heavily swirled when it came to bikinis. Some women regarded them as being freeing and empowering, while others thought the exposure was degrading and unnecessary. Regardless, it was clear bikinis were here to stay. 

The 1960 and 1970s: Body Ideals

With the song Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini ushering in the 1960s, one thing was certain: the bikini was officially part of pop culture.  Playboy featured a bikini on the cover shortly after, and the debut of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue followed. The naval-prohibiting Hays Code of the 1930s also dissolved, making way for more silver-screen depictions as well. One of the most notable was Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in the 1966 movie One Million Years B.C, which was later defined as the “definite look of the 1960s” (although we think fur might be just as uncomfortable as the wool and flannel from the 1910s)!

Source: We might stay away from the deer skin bikini on our next beach trip...

And while the bikini was catapulted into mainstream culture, so was the idea of what an “acceptable” bikini body was. In 1961 The New York Times reported that the bikini was only permissible for people “not too fat or too thin”, and famous etiquette writer Emily Post echoed that by writing that a bikini “is for the perfect figure only, and for the very young”. The concept of the “supermodel” also broke out shortly after this time, with models like Twiggy and Cheryl Tiegs showcasing in the mass media what the “ideal” female figure looked like. 

The 1980s: Sweatin’ to the Oldies 

Now the most popular swimsuit style on the market, the bikini continued to gain momentum with the rise of the 80’s fitness boom (Jane Fonda’s workout anyone?). With workouts that aimed to get rid of “bikini belly”, bikinis, body image and fitness became more and more intertwined with one another. 

Source: Jane Fonda kicking higher than we ever could 
The 1990s: A return to the Olympics 

Just like the maidens in the 1st century mosaic, women returned to wearing bikinis to play competitive sports in the 1990s. In 1994, the bikini became the required uniform for women’s Olympic volleyball. The bikini uniform made it’s debut at the 2000’s Olympics and drew huge crowds, largely in part to the sex appeal of the players.

While some professional volleyball players like Kerry Walsh have said she loves the uniforms, others like Gabrielle Reece have described them as uncomfortable, with lots of “yanking and fiddling”. Australian competitor Nicole Sanderson also said she found that regulating the bikini was “kind of disrespectful to the female players”. Ultimately, there was little choice for these professional volleyballers, which took away their agency and distracted from their incredible talent. 

Source: Game, set and match. Wait, is that tennis?
The 2000s: Wax on

Other things associated with bikini culture started having major booms too. Brazilian bikini waxes reached their peak influence when Carrie got her first wax in LA on Sex and the City. And not only did Carrie get her first wax, but lots of people who watched the episode did too. “I am totally bald”, Carrie told her friends, “And might I add… freezing”. 

Source: A chilly Carrie Bradshaw 


The past one hundred years (and beyond) has seen women’s swimwear go through so many transformations. From wool dresses to garments the size of an “atom”, worn by ancient athletes to silver screen bombshells alike, one thing is true for bikinis in 2020: they are for everyone. 

It might take a bit of time to unlearn some of the body ideals that have saturated our lives for years, but brands like Knix are designing bikinis that are cute, practical and made for everyone.  The concept of one specific “bikini body” is becoming a thing of the past. No matter your size, shape or body hair, bikinis are for everybody.

Source: The Eleuthera Peakaboo Bikini is a stunner!

Chasing the kids around? At the beach with friends? Taking pics to remind yourself how hot you are? There’s a Knix swimwear for you. And your BFF. And your sister. And your mom. And heck, the neighbour too. 

When it comes to bikini culture in 2020, Knix Ambassador Kaylynn Marisol Campbell said it best: When you wear your swimsuit, it is a radical act of self-love and liberation for you, by you. Every time I choose to wear the swimsuit, I feel a little less afraid”. 

Shop the entire Knix Swim 2020 Collection here!